In my mind the world follows the path of a pendulum- it swings back and forth from one extreme to the other. The ‘60s were free, the ‘70s conservative, the ‘80s back to a little craziness, bellbottoms one decade, skinny jeans the next, etc. We are starting to see this trend in the outdoor industry as well as the popularity of fast and light products is currently all the rage. However there is a movement occurring in the running world that is blowing minds: the Barefoot initiative. No, it is not a covert government-run program training shoeless ninjas, but a grassroots running technique that has flourished in recently in the press (due primarily to a novel Juan recommended I read called ‘’Born to Run’’- I suggest it to any runner whether professional or recreational). What a preposterous idea I hear you scream? Are a bunch of hippies trying to get us to wear Patchouli and run around fields barefoot in sundresses? Maybe.
Humans have evolved over millions of years to give us the fine specimens of athleticism we are today. During this time we have clambered down from the trees and thrown ourselves (feet first) into the flat, stretching plains of major continents. In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health evolution has been alongside us, adapting our bodies to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. If you kindly look down below your ankles you will see what the outcome was. ''But Mark Altitude, you seem to forget that men have evolved with useless nipples ergo your argument is moot, and furthermore nobody could actually run more than a kilometre without shoes on.'' First, nipples are delightful chest accessories for men so back off, and second you are totally incorrect.
In many countries you run with what you have- nothing. That might make you feel bad because you haven’t lived until you put your foot in a air-injected, nitrogen-enhanced, carbon fibre shoe, but get this: the marathon in the 1960 Olympics was won by an Ethiopian wearing nothing but what God gave him. That’s 42 kilometres if you don’t know. Track coaches in North America are even picking up on this idea like Vin Lananna from Stanford who gets his team to train barefoot regularly.
If our feet have evolved like this why cage them up in padded straight-jackets? The thought process behind the Barefoot movement is that perhaps we need to rethink the idea of ultra-cushy shoes that do everything for us except brush our teeth.
Our arch was designed to absorb impacts so why install a suspension system under us? It potentially leads to instability and thus injuries. A great benefit of Barefoot style shoes is their ability to increase “feel” under you. It may seem silly but if you can’t feel what is under you how is your body meant to react to the dip in the road/trail or the root/rock hiding under that low-lying branch? By removing the dozen or so milimeters of cushioning you become more (I can’t believe I am about to say this) at-one with nature and the surface beneath you. This also leads us to another benefit.
Without all that padding in the heel of the shoe you are left standing differently, as exemplified by Juan's impeccable stick-figure masterpiece. This is where, in my opinion, the magic happens. You will have to alter your stride in length to remove the heel strike and learn to land each step flat. This means your foot is landing almost underneath your body and not a good deal forward (with the heel). Your new foot strike means you are much more aligned vertically, which not only feels much more natural but also helps throw the shoulders back and aids with breathing. Of course removing the heel strike and landing flat footed (almost on the ball of the foot) means your calves are going to be worked like Mitt Romney’s speech writer (unlike his fact finder). But hey, that’s why they call it training.
Finally training is the point of this whole article so my last point is all about getting stronger. When you strip away all the bells and whistles from a shoe and are left with a minimalist shoe essentially your lower body will be doing more work. Landing on the forefoot means serious work for your calves and without pronation or suppination reinforcements in the heel your ankle muscles are working out, your arch may even begin to raise as the muscles in your feet get stronger. People are beginning to realize that this is actually a good thing! More work means stronger feet, ankles, calves and that in turn means a more in shape person- that is the goal in all this right?
We all love cars. We drive to work because it means we don’t have to waste energy getting there, and from that we get soft and lazy. I feel regular running shoes are like cars: they are great, but not necessary for everyone. Instead of letting laziness take over utilize that commuting time to break a sweat and take your bicycle instead of the car, tangentially barefoot running shoes make you work harder by strengthening muscles that are becoming atrophied while running in cushioned shoes. From my point of view that is a good thing because it translates into benefits in other areas like reducing chances of sprained ankles while playing basketball, and less joint pain because of less severe impacts to the body.
Like most things I will not say Barefoot running is for everyone. Sometimes a lil’ cushion is good for the pushin,’ but if you want to try something new then I would definitely suggest a pair of these (they may be addictive, so watch out). We sell a few models here at Altitude-Sports.com so to remove any hesitation about the difference in models I will compare three pairs built for three different pursuits. I will test the Merrell Bare Access (a road model), the Trail Glove (a cross country model), and finally the wildcard a 5-finger model. I look forward to it as much as you.
-take the stairs.